It has been my dream to work at a Chinito. Since I arrived in Panama 5 years ago, I’ve had a hard to explain fascination with these small corner stores. Maybe it’s because Chinitos are owner-operated. We share a small business man’s mindset. Maybe it’s because I’m curious about China and its culture. I’m itching to travel to Asia more. Or maybe it’s because I admire Chinito’s dedication. They are open everyday, and almost all day. Whatever it is, Chinitos fascinate me.
Chen is the owner of my local Chinito. I approached him about the possibility of working for him for a single day, without pay. Panamanian politicians refer to this as, “caminar en los zapatos del pueblo” (walking in the shoes of Joe the Plumber). I just call it an internship.
Chen: “No te voy a pagar, Gringo.” (I am not going to pay you, Evan)
Me: “I know. That is the beauty of an internship. Business owners don’t have to pay money. My compensation is the experience.”
Chen: “Está bien, loco!” (Alrighty then! You crazy man, you)
Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. I got busy with other things. Things included writing my first book as well as operating our rad colonial apartments. The idea of the Chinito internship was placed on the back-burner. Said another way, I procrastinated.
Ten days ago a sense of urgency came over me. My time in Panama was limited. Soon I would be back on the road. This time backpacking around Europe. My plan was to travel until my money ran out. If I was going to intern at the Chinito, it had to be now.
The following morning, I walked into the Chinito. Chen was re-stocking sacks of sliced pineapples. He was dressed casually in a white tank top, Umbro shorts, and pair of knock-off Crocs. I made a bee line straight for him. I stood behind him until he felt my presence. I spoke slowly.
Me: “Listo.” (Ready)
Chen turned around. His head cocked to the side as he looked at me confused. Chen had forgotten about our internship discussion months earlier. Instead of reminding him about it, I stayed silent. I proceeded on as if he remembered. My eyes were focused, and my face was serious.
Suddenly, Chen remembered. He, too, did not blink his eyes.
Chen: “Dale pues…” (Do it)
My internship was set. Tomorrow would be the day.
There was one small problem. While Chen and I’s stare off made for great T.V. drama, it left my internship clouded with a tremendous amount of ambiguity. What time do I start? What will be my responsibilities? I asked myself questions like these.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling searching for answers. Finally, an answer came to me in the form of a Chinese Proverb, “He who wakes up before dawn 360 days a year will make his family rich”. It became clear. I must rise before the sun.
The next morning, I arrive at the Chinito before dawn. As Chen rolls up his store front steel gate, I’m waiting there on the sidewalk. I have a cup of freshly brewed Boquete coffee in my hand. It’s my second. I’m ready to work.
Chen seems surprised to see me. Nonetheless, he immediately put me to work. My first duty is to be the front door watchman. This person sits on a beer grate at the entrance of the store and looks out for shoplifters. It’s an unglamourous position at the Chinito. However, I keep a good attitude. I’ve no problem starting from the bottom of the Chinito’s company ladder.
I ask Chen to demonstrate some of the tell-tale signs of a shoplifter.
Chen: “Busca el Ciclón. El Ciclón es carro, loco!” (Look out for the Ciclon. It is expensive! You crazy man, you)
Chen is referring to the energy drink, Ciclon. The price is $2 for a small can. $2 puts the price near the top of Chinito’s product list. Also, the small can makes it’s easy to conceal under a shirt or pair of shorts. Shoplifters take the Ciclon from his store and re-sell it to the Chinito on Calle 8. This is just one of the reasons Chen and Chinito on Calle 8 are not on speaking terms.
Chen asks me to focus my efforts on securing his energy drink section. I run into an unexpected problem. Most of the shoppers in this Chinito know me. They’re fellow Casqueños (residence of Casco Viejo). My attempts to search them are not taken seriously. Everybody thinks that I am being playful. “Oye, que te pasa, Gringo?!” (Cut it out, Evan!)
Chen realizes my efforts are being counter-productive. So he moves me to the candy section. Specifically, to restocking the Peanut M&Ms. After 30 minutes of restocking items, Chen needs to attend to a situation in the back of the store. He has to accept a beer delivery.
Chen: “Gringo, maneja la caja.” (Evan, take over the cash register)
Just like that I’m operating the cash register. The cash register is the epicenter of the Chinito. Me being summoned to take control of it is like a rookie backup NFL quarterback being thrust into the game after the starting veteran QB goes down with an injury. I had no time to think. Much less time to be nervous. Adrenaline raced through my veins – baptism by fire.
As Chen attends to the situation in the back, I am holding down the cash register just fine. I already know the price of most of the items being ordered. I order them frequently. They include bananas, yogurts, and calling cards.
All of a sudden, a rush of 20 MOP construction workers take their mid morning break. They all jam into the Chinito at once. The cash register is being overcrowded. (MOP = El Ministro de Obras Públicas aka The Ministry of Public Works)
MOP Construction worker: “Oye, Gringo, cuanto vale eso?” (Evan, how much does this cost?)
He holds up a mini liter of Coke-a-Cola. His bright yellow uniform is filthy. It’s covered with mud and bits of dried concrete from the extensive digging they are doing in Casco Viejo.
MOP Construction worker: “Chuleta! Ya el priceo subió!” (Pork Chop! The price has risen!)
Me: “Don’t blame me, papá. I am just the intern.”
Meanwhile, more and more MOP workers are surrounding the cash register.
#2 MOP Construction worker: “Gringo, dame una hoja.” (Evan, give me ‘X?’).
Me: “What is a ‘hoja’?”
Through hand motions, #2 mimics the rolling and puffing on a joint. I learn that “oja” is a slang term for blunt papers.
MOP workers have now engulfed the cash register. From all directions, everyone is demanding that I hurry up. “Muévete, Gringo!”(Move it, Evan)
A nervous sweat begins to drip off my face. My hands are shaky. Anxiety from the demands of impatient MOP construction workers has made me unable to do basic math. The pressure is mounting. I’m falling apart like a cheap suit. Chen is nowhere to be found.
By the grace of God, Carlos comes through the entrance. He is the skinny 20-year-old part-time worker at this Chinito. Carlos is Chinese, but was born in Panama. He is one of the growing number of first generation Chinese born and raised in Panama.
Immediately, Carlos sees me struggling and steps right in. He scoots me to the side as he takes the lead on the cash register. I slowly retreat to the beer crate a few feet away. He has essentially tagged me out.
Carlos is good. His movements are smooth and quick. He charms customers as he multi-tasks. With one hand, he lights a cigarette for a MOP worker. The lighter has been tied to the table to make sure it is not stolen. With the other hand, Carlos returns change to another customer. At the same time, another MOP worker asks the price of the small pack Ritz crackers.
Carlos: “20 centavos, nada má(s)!” (Only 20 cents. What a deal!)
Multi-tasking at the cash register like this continues. It’s an artform. Carlos has an entrepeneur-type of energy about him. I predict he will operate his own Chinito someday soon.
In the meantime, I’m taking notes on a small notebook I purchased right there from the Chinito. Writing information down helps me absorb it more efficiently. I discovered this during college. Hopefully, there will be another opportunity for me to “manejar la caja”.
MOP construction workers stay fraternizing in the Chinito during their break. They drink .25c Malta (a carbonated malt beverage) and nibble on .15c pancito (bread). Some of them cat-call girls ranging in age from 14 to 40. Other fight for bragging rights over who has the latest and greatest smartphone. The atmosphere is urban masculine and blue-collar.
Casco’s white-collar workers are also congregating. They hang out at Super G, a few blocks away. They sip on skim-milk cappuccinos as they discuss the advantages of vegan diets and Macintosh computers. The two groups are in relatively close proximity to each other, yet their cultures are worlds apart. But, I digress…
After a couple hours behind the cash register, Carlos is summoned to stock beers. Chen’s wife, Erika, has taken over. She sits next to me as she eats a bowl of sticky rice with chopsticks.
Erika: “Tu eres millonario, verdad?” (You are a millionaire.)
Me: “No, no, no… I’m just a small time hotelier who moonlights as an indie writer.”
Erika: “Mentira! Los gringos siempre tiene plata!” (Lie! Gringos always have money!)
Me: “Well, not this one. I’m still paying off student loan debts!”
We chit chat for a while. Then, she asks me if I want to take over the cash register. This time she will stay near just in case. I’m back in the game!